Amin Maalouf, the Lebanese-born author, began as a newspaperman in his native Beirut then moved to France at the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war.
The Rock of Tanios:
This book led me through a time and place for which I had no prior knowledge even though part of my Work in Progress moves through the same geography. Twelve hundred years pass between my subject and the world of Maalouf’s novel and yet I enjoyed the immersion into 1830s Lebanese mountain village life. This story of personal passion, murder and fateful decisions slowly expands to involve the wider political context—when Egypt, the Ottoman Empire, England and France vied for control of the region. All new territory for me.
My old interest in early medieval Central Asia drew me to this book. How could I pass up a story set in 11th century Samarkand? More, please!
As with The Rock of Tanios, this dual time-period novel introduced me to epochs of history to which I’d had little prior exposure: the life of Omar Khayyam during the Seljuk Empire and the Persian Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1907.
Again, some of my Work in Progress is set in Persia but five hundred years before any of the events included here.
But this is the attraction of reading historical fiction from off the beaten path. It opens up new adventures and the chance to see the world through another’s experience. Some say that stories help us develop empathy. They also help us understand ourselves.
You can find summaries and reviews of The Rock of Tanioshere and here.
You can find summaries and reviews of Samarkandhere and here.
Afterward—Long after I’d read these two novels, I realized that the author is one and the same with that of The Crusades Through Arab Eyes—the book I read way back in the early ‘90s which had such a strong effect on me. It was, in fact, one of the sparks which ignited my own slow movement towards my Work In Progress.
You can find summaries and reviews of The Crusades Through Arab Eyeshere and here.
As you can see from the image, I have four of the five books in this series. I do hope to catch up with the last one: Conqueror.
It has been several years since I read these stories but sometimes distance strengthens impressions.
Wolf of The Plains is by far the most memorable. When pondering character development or the influence of setting on psyche, this book often comes to mind. Iggulden immerses us into the life of a Mongol boy navigating a brutal cultural and natural environment. We walk alongside him while he establishes himself as the supreme leader of all who encounter him – starting with his own brothers. From a childhood of loss and hardship emerges the man who will conquer the world.
The series’ subplot – Genghis’ relationship with his son Joshi – is a tragedy often played out in the lives of great men. Unsure if Joshi is his own blood, Genghis never completely accepts him. (Genghis’ wife is raped at around the time of Joshi’s conception). Also, Genghis for too long delays rolling authority to his sons – clinging instead to absolute power – resulting in divisions and strife. In this I am reminded of Sharon Kay Penmen’s portrayal of Henry II, his family’s dysfunction and the ensuing fallout so brilliantly dramatized in her Plantagenet series. Both are examples of powerful leaders unable to relinquish control to the next generation.
Highly recommended for historical immersion, world/culture building, action/adventure.
It can find starred Reviews for these books on Amazon and Goodreads:
Modern Sensibilities: One of the challenges of writing historical fiction is balancing the values of the reader with the worldview of characters from a distant time/place. The writer must provide the modern audience with someone to identify with even when the context is wholly other.
Colin Falconer’sSilk Roadspans the swath of geography from the Holy Land to Central Asia in 1260 AD. Writing from this distance in time and culture presents a greater than usual challenge to bridge the gap between story context and the reader.
Falconer does this by creating a female character, Khutelun, with the skills, spunk and father’s indulgence to have the freedom to live as a man – allowing for adventures and encouraging her natural leadership. This is believable because we know that Mongol women did have more clout than their western sisters at the time.
Falconer also creates a main character, Josseran Sarrazini, a Templar knight, who begins to question his Christian heritage. And, William, a Dominican friar, who represents every despicable characteristic of religious fanatics. This juxtaposition of an open-minded man who finally casts off all faith and the Evil EthnocentricCleric who never changes, seems crafted to appeal to the modern reader’s freedom of thought and to encourage the gleeful derision of all things terrible about organized religion.
I have two problems:
1) The drastic final action of the Templar doesn’t ring true. Of course, as a believer, I would say this. But I also assert so as an intelligent reader. In 1260 AD, the act of completely turning one’s back on faith, and doing what he finally does, would have been terrifying. (And I won’t even tell you what he finally does as it would be an extreme spoiler.)
Of course, it is the writer’s freedom to do as he wishes, but it felt like a wink at the politically correct modern world.
2) Meanwhile, William, the Despicable Cleric, never learns, never grows. I admit there were moments when Falconer tried hard to humanize him; make us think William might improve, if only a little. Was that an attempt to forestall criticism of caricature? Or provide an honest picture of personal enigma? In the end, this character goes nowhere.
Again, it’s the writer’s freedom to do as he wishes, but it was tiresome. Okay, we get it – Evil Monk. Been Done To Death.
The book is slow at times if you want all action. But if you are reading Silk Road because of an interest in the region, you’ll enjoy the descriptions even if you find yourself skimming through some of it as I did.
And, the editing is appalling. How did this happen?
On the Other Hand:
Despite my complaints, Colin Falconer has a new fan. He is a wonderful storyteller and I will definitely read more of his work. I crave well researched high adventure stories in places beyond the standard fare. This is the kind of book I love. This is the kind of book I want to write. I will forgive all for more of this. Falconer sweeps you along on roads far beyond the beaten path and immerses you into another world.
The good news is: Colin Falconer has written 40+ books. I will look for others set in times/places that appeal to me. Lot’s to choose from. It will be interesting to compare the story and editing qualities of subsequent reads with my Silk Road experience.
In the meantime, I hope Mr. Falconer will slow down enough to do some serious quality control on the editing. Maybe his production schedule is coming at too great a sacrifice.
Recommended: For action & adventure set in far off lands
If you have any interest in Central Asia, Afghanistan specifically, I urge you to check out a new blog that I recently discovered. It is called “Stories My Grandmather Told Me”. The About page explains:
“My grandmother was born, raised and lived most of her life in a tiny village in the central highlands of Afghanistan. We became refugees during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. We lived in Pakistan for many years before subsequently settling in Australia.
In this blog, I bring to you the stories of my grandmother’s and our lives as told by my grandmother.”
I know nothing more than that “About” info and having read all 19 posts.
The first post was on January 4, 2015. So, whoever the writer is, they have just gotten started. I hope more people will read the blog and encourage this writer to keep going. The stories are immediate, simple and gripping.
Dancing Girls Rehearsing – Photo Copyright Lausanne Davis Carpenter
I thought I would start some regional reading lists for our ready reference.
Since Central Asia has long been my personal fascination I will start there.
Here’s what I have found thus far:
Historical Fiction set in Central Asia by Asians:
Chingiz Aitmatov’s name rises to the top of any search. Aitmatov wrote in both Russian and Kirghiz. Many of his works are out of print but several are available on Amazon. Prices range from $0.01-$400.00.
White Steamship, Hodder & Stoughton Ltd (August 14, 1972). ISBN 978-0-340-15996-5 (Soviet Era Kyrgyzstan)
The White Ship, Crown Publishing Group; 1st Edition (November 1972). ISBN 978-0-517-50074-3
Tales of the Mountains and the Steppes, Firebird Pubns; Second Printing edition (June 1973). ISBN 978-0-8285-0937-4 (Soviet Era)
Ascent of Mount Fuji, Noonday Press (June 1975). ISBN 978-0-374-51215-6 (Soviet Era)
Cranes Fly Early, Imported Pubn (June 1983). ISBN 978-0-8285-2639-5
The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years, Indiana University Press (February 1, 1988). ISBN 978-0-253-20482-0 (Soviet Era Kazakhstan)
The Place of the Skull, Grove Pr; 1st edition (March 1989). ISBN 978-0-8021-1000-8
The Place of the Skull: Novel, International Academy of Sciences, Industry, Education & Arts (USA) (2000). ISBN 978-5-7261-0062-3
Time to Speak, International Publishers (May 1989). ISBN 978-0-7178-0669-0 The time to speak out (Library of Russian and Soviet literary journalism), Progress Publishers (1988). ISBN 978-5-01-000495-8 (Genre unclear)
Mother Earth and Other Stories, Faber and Faber (January 8, 1990). ISBN 978-0-571-15237-7 (Soviet Era Kyrgyzstan)
Jamila, Telegram Books (January 1, 2008). ISBN 978-1-84659-032-0 (World War II,Caucasus)
The Blue Sky: (translation in print from Der blaue Himmel, 1994)- Galsin Tschinag. (1940s Communist Mongolia).
Tschinag was from the Altai mountains of western Mongolia and wrote in German.
Wolf Totem – Rong Jiang (pseudomnym for Lu Jiamin) A bestseller in China, the story takes place in Mongolia – multiple periods.
The Railway– Set in 1900-1980 Uzbekistan by Uzbek writer: Hamid Ismailov
Of course Khaled Hosseini’s three novels set in Afghanistan (Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns and, most recently, And the Mountains Echoed) are not to be missed even though they are set in the current milieu.
Central Asian Historical Fiction by Non-Central Asians:
I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade – Diane Wilson (YA) (14th Century China)
The Conqueror Series (Five book saga of Ghengis Khan/Kublai Khan – 12th Century) – Conn Iggulden
Kim – Rudyard Kipling. Set during the Great Game as British India and Russia vied for control of Central Asia.
The web site states: “This year’s festival, which will take place in London, UK, to awaken the interest of the English reader to read the Central Asian literature translated into English, will also attract the public’s attention to the development of the publishing industry, as well as the publishers themselves to the potential of the Central Asian literature in the world market. The event will be attended by as many recognized in his home country of authors, including Hamid Ismailov and Casati Akamatova and British authors with works devoted to Central Asia.”
Unfortunately, I can’t find anywhere on the site which provides descriptions of works translated to English so I am not able to glean potential reading lists.
If anyone out there knows where to find this information, or happens to be at the festival, please let me know if there is any historical fiction we should know about.
Following that lead by googling Silk Road Media takes you to silkpress.com which mentions their recent publication of Christopher Marlowe’s play Tamburlaine the Great into Uzbek – the language of the protagonist. Who knew? That’s definitely going on my TBR list – the English edition, of course. My Uzbek is rusty.
Please let me know if you have anything to add to this list!
Two Men in Osh, Kyrgyzstan – Copyright Lausanne Davis Carpenter
Most people can testify to at least one teacher who made an otherwise dreaded subject come alive. I had several excellent English teachers but already enjoyed literature and drama. History required a master storyteller. I’ve forgotten his name but he made American History sound like it had happened to him. Last week. He knew all these tidbits and side stories that were not in the text book. He transformed a dull, irrelevant topic into entertainment for junior high students. This miracle might qualify him for sainthood.
But my true love of history occurred much later. Why are so many of us hooked on history only after we reach adulthood? I think it is then that we ask new life questions. It’s no longer, “Why can’t I borrow the car?” but rather, “Why do people behave this way?” Or, for me, “What happened here?”
I became interested in Christian history around 1987. I was back to church after several years of distraction (college) and wanted to understand the development of my own traditions and theology. I’d been taught the Bible since I was a child but wondered how we got from those stories to the present. At the time, I was a temp word processor for a major corporation. Work was slow so I brought in reading material. On my desk sat, Here I Stand (a bio of Martin Luther), and a stack of Puritan history books. People kept asking me if I was taking a course. They were mystified when I confessed I was reading for pleasure.
My next phase came when I moved to London. Try to walk around London for a day and not long to spend the rest of your life exploring every layer of the past hidden in each cubic inch of that soil. So, for the next few years, I devoured British history. I lived in the East End surrounded by Bengali, Pakistani and Somali immigrants and I built deep friendships with many of the women. Over time I became fascinated with early Islamic history. I asked the same questions of Islam that I’d asked of my own faith – where did this come from? How did what I saw in 1990s London come from what happened in the seventh century Near and Middle East?
Meanwhile, I had been a painter, a theatre designer, and an inner-city community worker. The accessibility of London gave me opportunities to travel; Africa, Central Asia, Eastern Europe and the newly dismantled USSR – every location steeped in stories. Can you stand in the open air markets of Fez, Morocco or Osh, Kyrgyzstan without feeling you’ve just experienced time travel? Without imagining the sights and sounds of a thousand years? I found a new love for old travel books – stories of The Great Game and intrepid Victorian women – but writing, of any sort, was not on my radar.